Exorcists and Exorcisms Proliferate Across U.S.

New York Times/November 28, 2000
By John W. Fountain

Chicago - There are demons here, some people say, the kind that torment and manifest themselves with spit-spewing and violent convulsions through the people they possess, evil spirits that can trap people inside themselves and utter foreign languages.

That belief was at the root of a decision by the archdiocese of Chicago to appoint a full-time exorcist last year for the first time in its 160- year history. It is the same reason that the Rev. Bob Larson, an evangelical preacher and author who runs an exorcism ministry in Denver will hold one of his "Spiritual Freedom" conferences in the ballroom of a suburban Chicago hotel in January.

Mr. Larson, who said he had 40 "exorcism teams" across the country, hopes to assemble a similar team here in Chicago to perform the ancient ritual for those believed to be possessed by the Devil.

"Our goal is that no one should ever be more than a day's drive from a city where you can find an exorcist," said Mr. Larson, who says Christians have the authority by Jesus Christ to drive Satan out of the possessed. "Why should that freak us out?" he said. "It's in the Bible. Christ taught it."

The number of exorcists and exorcisms has increased across the country in the last 10 years, experts said. While Chicago's archdiocese has one official exorcist, New York City's diocese has four, including the Rev. James J. LeBar, its chief exorcist. The Chicago archdiocese has not disclosed the identity of its exorcist, largely to maintain the privacy of those seeking his services, church officials said.

Over all, the number of full-time exorcists in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has risen to 10 from only one a decade ago, said Michael W. Cuneo, a Fordham University sociologist whose book "American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty" is to be published next year.

Mr. Cuneo writes of an "underground network" of exorcists numbering in the hundreds, and a "bewildering variety of exorcisms being performed."

>From 1989 to 1995, the archdiocese of New York examined more than 300 potential exorcism cases, although exorcisms were performed in only 10 percent of the cases, Father LeBar said. Since 1995, the New York diocese has investigated about 40 cases a year.

In addition to Roman Catholic exorcisms, an unknown number of spiritual-cleansing ceremonies are being performed by priests outside the sanctioning of the church, and by evangelical ministers and Episcopal charismatics, Mr. Cuneo said. Mr. Cuneo spent two years studying the subject and said he had witnessed more than 50 of the rituals.

Two factors are spurring the growth in exorcisms, experts said. One is popular culture; the other is a belief by some that there is more evil in the world.

As recently as the 1960's, Mr. Cuneo said, "exorcism was all but dead and gone in the United States." "It was a fading ghost long past its prime," he added. "People weren't running to get demons expelled."

But in 1973, the movie "The Exorcist" changed that. The movie, recently re-released, spurred an onslaught of movies dealing with demon possession and Satanism. By the mid-1980's, there was a proliferation of exorcisms done by evangelical Protestants, Mr. Cuneo said.

Some experts surmise that the rise in demand may simply be a part of a society that has grown more accepting of therapy. Typically, people who seek exorcism are distraught and have exhausted conventional means of relieving an inner turmoil that has long plagued them, experts said, and generally exhibit violent or other abnormal behavior.

The Roman Catholic Church requires that a physician rule out the existence of a medical or psychological condition before an exorcism can be considered. Those people who are "so wounded and broken, whether it's drug addiction or severe sexual abuse, are incredibly desperate people who basically don't have anywhere else to go," Mr. Larson said.

In an exorcism, the exorcist invokes the name of Christ, blesses the person who is possessed, recites biblical passages and commands the evil spirit to leave. Mr. Cuneo said that most exorcisms are not a private affair between priest and patient.

"You have loved ones and a support group there and people praying for you, and you're at the center of attention," he said. The exorcism "can involve you wailing and moaning, perhaps thrashing on the floor, perhaps shredding hair, shredding clothing, regurgitating, perhaps flailing out."

The experience of exorcism is not simply psychological and physical, exorcists said, but spiritual as well. "These are people who have been through therapy," Mr. Larson said. "They've seen psychiatrists. They've had medical attention and nothing has solved their problem. We're not telling people that this is a complete fix. "What we're saying is that if you have a demon, all the other modalities of therapy are only going to get you so far. They will not get you past that hurdle that's keeping you from going anywhere."

In January 1999, the Vatican issued a revised Catholic rite of exorcism for the first time since 1614, essentially reaffirming that Satan exists. The new rules call for church- approved exorcists to consult modern medicine and to rule out the possibility of a mental or physical disorder.

An exorcism performed in the Roman Catholic Church must be approved by a bishop, and only a relatively small number of cases investigated actually end up in a full- fledged exorcism, officials said. In fact, on Thursday, the Vatican issued new norms intended to stop unauthorized exorcisms, saying that exorcisms must adhere to the revised rite issued last year.

"It might be harmful to do an exorcism prematurely," said the Rev. Robert Barron, a Chicago archdiocese theologian and spokesman on exorcisms. "You always exhaust the medical, physiological, psychological, psychiatric possibilities and only at the very limit of that process would you entertain the possibility of doing an exorcism."

Since his appointment by Cardinal Francis George in 1999, the unidentified Chicago exorcist has performed one exorcism, which was successful, Father Barron said, and has begun investigating a dozen cases.

Exorcisms do not always end well. It can take years to expunge a demon, Father LeBar said. That was apparently the case with a 19-year- old Italian woman on whom Pope John Paul II performed an impromptu exorcism at St. Peter's Square in September after she began cursing him in a voice not her own. The pope reportedly prayed for her for half an hour, commanding a demon to leave her, but, according to church officials, failed to fully cure the young woman, who, they said, had been possessed since she was 12.

In some cases, the subject of the ritual has died. In January 1998, the authorities said, Charity Miranda Martin, 17, of Sayville, N.Y., was suffocated by her mother during an exorcism. In another case four years ago, a 31-year-old man in Pawtucket, R.I., jammed two eight-inch steel crosses down his mother-in-law's throat during an exorcism.

And, in many cases, exorcisms often entail vomiting, cursing and violent outbursts by the possessed. "Dealing with the Devil is ugly work," Mr. Larson said. "The Devil is ugly. Evil is ugly. When you get to what I call pure extreme evil, it's not going to be pretty."

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